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In these dark times, young American Jews are a ray of hope

The recent campaigns taking aim at Birthright and the American political establishment are more than symbolic — they are sowing the seeds of a powerful resistance movement against Israel’s occupation.

By Oren Kroll-Zeldin

American Jewish activists protest outside the Birthright offices in New York, April 5, 2019. (GIli Getz)

American Jewish activists protest outside the Birthright offices in New York, April 5, 2019. (GIli Getz)

Passover is a celebration of freedom, justice, and liberation. In Hebrew it is referred to as zman heruteynu, the season of our freedom. As I reflected during my Passover seder this year on what it means for Jews today to be free, I thought back to an oft-cited quotation from Jewish American poet and social activist Emma Lazarus that says: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Her ethical plea for intersectional Jewish social justice implores us to understand that one’s freedom is deeply connected to the freedom of another.

Passover is also about hope. And though hope for a just and sustainable peace in Palestine-Israel seems to be at an all-time low, particularly in the aftermath of Israel’s recent elections, the Passover holiday gives us an opportunity to focus on the places where hope emerges and a more just future seems possible.

Though in moments of despair it may be hard to find optimism, I want to offer a sliver of hope: throughout history, social movements seeking justice and liberation successfully achieved their demands for social and political change, even in what may appear to be the darkest of times. And emerging from the current contentious political climate is a rapidly-developing social movement working to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

My research on diaspora Jewish anti-occupation activism shows that numerous groups and individuals are mounting pressure on the institutional Jewish spaces that uphold support for Israel’s occupation, forcing a fundamental shift in Jewish American attitudes toward Israel and Zionism. It is these activists, and the grassroots social movement they are helping to build with allies from other communities and progressive politicians, that is beginning to apply pressure that is swinging the political pendulum in a new direction.

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Today, in response to more than half a century of Israeli occupation and rising political divisions in American Jewish institutions, there is a social movement of multiple organizations, collectives, and individual activists who are working together and separately to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, abolish mainstream Jewish community’s support for the occupation, and call attention to the freedom, dignity, and justice that Palestinians demand.

One prominent example is IfNotNow’s “Not Just a Free Trip” campaign targeting Birthright. In a well-coordinated and highly publicized action, dozens of activists protested outside Birthright’s offices in New York demanding that the organization expose trip participants to the harsh realities of everyday life for Palestinians. Fifteen activists were arrested, prompting IfNotNow to escalate their calls to action and encourage young Jews to boycott Birthright until it exposes participants to the occupation.

As a partial response to the success of this campaign, J Street announced it will offer a free trip that will take participants to Israel as well as to Palestinian cities and an Israeli settlement in the West Bank in an attempt to challenge the Birthright narrative.

Meanwhile, the membership of left-wing Jewish organizations in the United States like IfNotNow, J Street, and Jewish Voice for Peace is only growing. These three groups form the core of a large cadre of American Jews who are looking for ways to pressure both Israel and the U.S. to end Israel’s occupation. Their organizing caused several progressive members of Congress to turn down an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel, shaking the foundation of the lobby’s dominance over the Israel conversation in American politics.

Illustrative photo of American Jews participating in the annual AIPAC conference in Washington DC. (Gili Getz)

Illustrative photo of American Jews participating in the annual AIPAC conference in Washington DC. (Gili Getz)

More recently, numerous politicians, including Democratic candidates for President, refused to attend the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, fearing that attending the conference would alienate the progressive base of the party and jeopardize their chances at the Democratic nomination for President. While this may seem like a minor accomplishment, it shows that the social movement is forming more significant cracks in unequivocal American support for Israel.

The campaigns taking aim at Birthright and the American political establishment are more than a symbolic attempt to expose people to the realities of occupation — they are sowing the seeds of a powerful resistance movement that is gaining momentum and developing a fine-tuned strategy. This movement recognizes that where there is power, there must also be resistance.

In a time of great persecution and un-freedom for so many people around the world, the Passover holiday gives us an opportunity to reflect on the hope that this social movement can be successful in truly ushering in zman heruteynu, not just for Jews but for all people. And as is the case with all social movements, once the voices of dissent grow loud enough, nothing will be able to stop it.

Oren Kroll-Zeldin is the Assistant Director of the Swig Program for Jewish Studies and Social Justice and Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is on Twitter @orenkz.

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    COMMENTS

    1. brightdark

      They’re a ‘powerful new movement’? No they aren’t. They’re a bunch of young skulls full of mush that have nothing better to do then spend their parents money being trendy. They don’t go to Temple, the go to a social club. They go to Israel, chant some, Israels(including the left) laugh at them, then they go home.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Leave it to an Israeli to call bedrock American principles “mush.” It shows you where Israelis are really coming from. American Jews, especially the younger ones, are no longer fooled.

        And it’s doubly funny because it is exactly “Birthright” that tries to fill young American Jews’ heads with a bunch of mush. Mush consisting of blue and white pom-pom-waving, Leon Uris style Hollywood kitsch. “Rah rah rah, go blue and white! Yeaaay!!”
        It is exactly the Jews refusing “Birthright” who refuse to have their heads filled with mush.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        In Brightdark’s contempt for American Jews one can see how the patronizing Birthright pablum spoon-fed willing Birthright participants is also a source of the cynical laughing contempt in which Israelis like Brightdark hold American Jews. They pat you on the head and send you back to America, laughing behind your back.
        Refuse to be patronized!

        Reply to Comment
    2. Chaz Hoosier

      As an editorial in Haaretz recently pointed out, American Jews are overwhelmingly Democratic, and Netanyahu hitched his (and Israel’s) wagon to Donald Trump. It was a very short sighted move.

      Reply to Comment
    3. itshak Gordine

      Are they really Jewish? I think they are people who feel vaguely Jewish, who are basically ashamed of not living in Israel and prefer to assimilate in the USA. These people are probably from a mixed marriage and their children will not be Jewish. They are constantly giving us life-threatening advice, and we despise them. Let us enjoy this last day of Pesach to pray together for the total liberation of the Land of Israel and the construction of the 3rd Temple.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Itshak: It’s your own security establishment that’s giving you ‘life threatening advice’:

        Shabtai Shavit, Former Director of the Mossad, Member of Commanders for Israel’s Security’s Steering Committee:

        Attaining the security benefits of progress with the Palestinians and regional integration requires abandoning the madness of annexation, which will exclude any possibility of separation between the two peoples and lead to a prolonged bloody struggle within the borders of one state. A small minority of extremists is dragging an entire country towards a precipice. They must be stopped to avoid the annihilation of the Zionist vision.

        http://en.cis.org.il/2019/01/14/war-and-peace/

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Bruce:
          Shabtai Shavit belongs to the same elderly club of “experts” who gave us the Oslo disaster and the Itnatkut catastrophe. His views always turn to be totally nonsensical.

          Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Bruce, Shavit supported the Oslo Process and later on (when that failed) he supported Itnatkut (which has also failed). His choice of policies speaks for itself.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Oslo failed alright, just not in the way ‘Lewis’ imagines.

            The settler population in the occupied West Bank is more than three times the size it was in 1993. That is not consistent with Israel ever acting in good faith. It simply used the Oslo accords to buy time and entrench the occupation and gobble up the land.

            Indeed Itnatkut is a failure. Itnatkut failed because the Kibush never ended and that failed too. You may see a giant open air prison for non-Jews as a “success” but the people inside the prison do not.

            By Noam Sheizaf | September 13, 2012
            An agreement on indefinite occupation: Oslo celebrates 19 years [25 years now]
            https://972mag.com/an-agreement-on-indefinite-occupation-oslo-celebrates-19-years/55788/

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            In Ben’s twisted mind, the occupation of Gaza never ended.
            Yes, its that bad……….

            Reply to Comment
      • john

        fake jews? classic zionist antisemitism, with your hatred clearly admitted.

        Reply to Comment
      • Dave Cohen

        Actually, you have it back to front Itshak. These people are real Jews- they have compassion and care for their fellow human beings. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for you. Your comments are just filled with hate.

        Reply to Comment
      • Carmen

        If they say they are, they are. There isn’t a blood test for jewness. It’s a doctrine, not a race of people. Now that’s cleared up, maybe you should think why your first question is to distract by questioning their faith, instead of your morality.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          I think the point being made is that this is definitely the last generation of Jews. Given the runaway effects of intermarriage & assimilation, that is exactly what is happening in America. In another 50 years, only a hard core of Orthodox will remain. All the rest will be gone.

          But that does not bother you Carmen, because it is only a religion. That means it’s a personal hobby-type thing that should not be taken seriously, right ?

          Reply to Comment
          • john

            the only way for nonjews to gain jewish nationality is religious conversion, e.g. ivanka trump.

            miscegenation (intermarriage) does not stop jewish women having jewish babies, and this concern is a jim crow era throwback. integration (assimilation) of another group into a homogenous society did not stop white people surviving, and neither does it stop jews, despite your certainty.

            Reply to Comment
    4. What does spoils of war mean? Wasn’t Palestinre a cuty city not a country. Who started thst war there and then lost it?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Lewis from Afula

      If these so-called American “Jews” want to change Israeli policies, then they need to move to over here in large numbers. They than can vote in the next Israeli elections.

      Otherwise, all their ranting, chanting and activitism in the US will NEVER change a damn thing.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Your premise being that American support doesn’t matter anymore? You’re welcome to that most interesting and reckless hypothesis. I think you and ‘Brightdark’ are whistling in the dark:

        The Trump-Netanyahu Axis Pours High-octane Fuel on the Fire Consuming Democrats’ Support for Israel
        A new Pew Research poll highlights the scale of the erosion and provides a stark warning about the future
        Chemi Shalev
        https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-the-trump-netanyahu-axis-fuels-fire-consuming-democrats-support-for-israel-1.7164179

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          US military aid is equivalent to 1% of Israel’s GDP and is falling each year. It will soon be very irrelevant.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Your premise being that American support is mainly military hardware support? You’re welcome to that interesting and reckless hypothesis. I think you and ‘Brightdark’ are whistling in the dark.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Israel is becoming economically stronger. Over the next several months, the Leviathan field, containing 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, will come online. In the next few years, Israel will be selling huge amounts of natural gas to Europe. I don’t see any US President trying to stop these type of developments.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            So we’ve covered guns and butter. Next is the American political support you can do without? Ok. Personally I think the sooner right wing Israelis thoroughly alienate the American people the better. They’ve made a great start. Kol hakavod.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Ben:
            The American people have other huge problems on their plate right now.
            Using true 1980 methods of measurements -see http://www.shadowstats.com/
            US Inflation is now 10%
            US Unemployment is now 21%
            So in reality, the US has been in recession since 2008.
            That’s why the US birth rate, marriage rate & life expectancy has been DECREASING for several years.

            At the moment, the US debt is enormous and is increasing exponentually. When the system breaks, the US will plunge into a new Great Depression.
            Given these realities – both already happening and impending, Americans don’t have time to think about a tiny country 5000 miles away.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “Americans don’t have time to think about a tiny country 5000 miles away.”

            The implication here is that if Americans DID think about it they would agree with me, Ben, and not you, Lewis. In other words, your thinking is gangster-style, “what can we get away with while good people aren’t paying attention?” thinking. This is true about your thinking irrespective of the truth or falsity of your economic claims.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            I am glad that Ben agrees with me that most Americans are not bothered by what happens in Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            It’s only too clear, Lewis, that you are in spirit basically an enemy of the United States and an ally of the evil Vlad Putin and the Russians, in this sense: it is only too clear that you WANT the United States and Western Europe to descend into failure and chaos and be beset by such severe internal preoccupations that they will be so distracted as to leave Israel alone to do its dirty work. As I think I told you already, this is how gangsters operate. “What can we get away with when no one is looking?” Do you hear yourself? Do you read what you write? Do you think about it? In countless posts here you have gloated, reveled, licked your chops at the prospect of what you think is a new Decline of the West. By every indication in your own words, you WANT Islamic extremists to succeed in their wildest dreams. At least for long enough to give you cover to annex and mass-transfer occupied civilians, and per MK and soon to be minister Bezalel Smotrich, kill those who won’t cooperate. Yours is in this sense an appalling agenda. A repellent one. I don’t think “evil” is too strong a word.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Be that as it is, you are entitled to your own fantasies and your own echo chamber but not to your own fake facts. Reality, courtesy of the centrist Haaretz:

            Netanyahu’s pandering gestures are pleasing for many Israelis and Trump’s fans in America, but they make Democratic stomachs turn. Most Democrats view Trump as a clear and present danger to America and its democracy — and his supporters as active collaborators. Netanyahu, who turned Israel into Trump’s most enthusiastic cheerleading squad, has cast himself, in the eyes of Democrats, as the devil’s disciple. Sympathy for him and, by extension, for Israel is plummeting.
            The new Pew Research Center poll published on Wednesday highlights the extent of the avalanche. More Democrats view the Israeli government unfavorably than they do the Palestinian leadership. Only a tenth prefer Israelis to Palestinians: a majority expresses sympathy for both. More significantly, perhaps, 53 percent claim that Trump’s policies have been too tilted in favor of the Jewish state: Small wonder that senior Israeli officials expressed concern this week that a Democratic president would act quickly to reverse some of Trump’s actions — and Netanyahu’s achievements — with the main focus on the U.S. abandonment of the nuclear deal with Iran.
            The horizon, according to the Pew poll, seems even darker. The younger the respondents — Democrats and Republicans alike — the more likely they are to be critical of Israel. Democrats between the ages of 18 and 49 actually — and astonishingly — view the Palestinian government more favorably than Israel’s. Given that Netanyahu is about to set up a new government that will be even more ethnocentric, theocratic and “Trumpian” than the outgoing one, it is reasonable to assume the American public’s support for Israel is fast approaching a tipping point from which there may be no return.
            https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-the-trump-netanyahu-axis-fuels-fire-consuming-democrats-support-for-israel-1.7164179

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            So I am now an evil Russian Agent ?
            I thought I was a Feiglinist Extremist.
            In anycase, what I WANT to happen will not NECESSARILY happen if all my ideas are essentially absurd, as you have repeatedly stated in all your posts.

            So what are you worrying about ?
            I think you need to stick to your view that the economies of America and Western Europe are financially stable and the Islamic problem is a transient issue that will soon pass.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You’re no more or less a “Russian agent” than that brilliant mastermind spawn of Trump, Donald “if it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer” Trump Jr. The Russians have standards you know. LoL.

            Reply to Comment
    6. Lea B.

      You aren’t quite what you think you are. Jews on the right and the left are not aware of many things. Israel can’t defend itself? Birthright can’t help Jews learn about their homeland? Jews should be activists and side with left wing haters? Come on, you can do better than this. You really don’t get it. Jews have been persecuted for thousands of years and now young Jews are helping to belittle, have strong extreme opinions and one sided beliefs. Jews have been known for justice when they use true Jewish values . By the way, Giving away land in Isreal has never solved any problems in the Middle East. Become part of the solution, not the age old, worn out, useless problem.

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        likewise, israel seizing land has never solved anything in the middle east.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Lea: What you write is a string of disconnected slogans, not a coherent statement. The incoherence is its own message. And telling. So is the sloganeering.

        Reply to Comment
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